The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial

Ted Weinstein tweet on magazine publishing

On Tuesday, March 5, I found (via Twitter) the following piece by freelance journalist Nate Thayer:

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month.

For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers, you’ll see that $0 or maybe $50–$100 is common for very well-known sites. In fact, the more traffic a website gets, the more it can avoid payment by offering the carrot of exposure—which is indeed valuable and needed for some writers, but not all.

Thayer, in response to the offer of pay through exposure, says:

Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken [sic].

As indignant as Thayer might be, I find his perplexed state to be rather disingenuous if he’s been keeping up at all with the evolution of online journalism. One can imagine a brief “No, thank you,” would have been the more graceful gesture, but on the other hand, if writers don’t express outrage at not being paid—and don’t take editors to task for it—can they really expect the situation to change? (Personally, I still like and advocate for the brevity of the “No, thanks,” answer. If editors hear “no” often enough and can’t get their hands on the content they want or need, that spurs change, too.)

Thayer’s post spread quickly via Twitter on Tuesday, with Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) coming to the defense of Atlantic Digital. However, Madrigal is NOT the editor who was involved in the e-mail exchange above; he works for a different “channel” of Atlantic Digital, but is one of the most prominent and (in my mind) admirable editors involved with the digital side of the Atlantic, which operates independently from the print side.

Madrigal offered fascinating insights into the editorial operations of Atlantic Digital, including:

  • Atlantic’s channel editors have tiny freelance budgets, but independently control how things come in, what rates are, what the “rules” are, etc. (Tweet.) If he had more money, Madrigal implied he’d be more likely to hire a staffer than freelancers. (Tweet.) He said that he used to run a lot of outside material, but it was hard to control quality, hard to edit, and time consuming. (Tweet.)
  • Staffers and established contributors write most of the stories at Atlantic Online. He said that 90% of the traffic comes from these sources, not freelancers. “The site is almost entirely driven by top 15 writers or so, all paid.” (Tweet.) He later said a typical Atlantic staffer brings in 400K uniques per month (not clear how many articles a staffer typically writes, however), and a good freelance piece will bring in a median of 15K-25K uniques. (Tweet.) Freelancer Paul Ford (@ftrain) responded, “Ah so now I can understand the gap between Thayer’s POV and Atlantic POV. Starts to make more sense.” (Tweet.)
  • Broadly speaking, the norms under discussion are up in the air and inconsistent within publications and across different publications. (Tweet.) Others in the Twitter stream argued this meant that it’s important for Atlantic to articulate a clear vision, and that varying philosophies within a publication are detrimental to that vision and ultimately to survival. However, Madrigal responded by saying that the alternative is “centralized control of what is happening,” which he wants to avoid. In other words, as the technology channel leader, he presumably gets to call the shots, and that’s been good for him and that channel. (Tweet.)
  • For my unschooled readers, I should emphasize that the decentralized nature of Atlantic Online is exactly the opposite of what happens at most traditional print publications, which often have a rigid hierarchy. Based on my experience and observations, the decentralized structure of Atlantic Online is a growing and common phenomenon among progressive, digital publications. (Another example of a big brand employing a decentralized strategy is Forbes.)
  • The tension of quality vs. velocity (or quantity) hasn’t disappeared. A particularly revealing moment came with the following: “This is a complex battle to win when biz dev has one lever to push: velocity. They can’t say, ‘Write better stuff.'” (Tweet.) However, Madrigal also mentioned that since 2010 they’ve ratcheted down the number of pieces getting pushed out because of the downside and risk of low-quality work. Ultimately, he says they have to do both “fast” and “slow” work well. (Tweet.) And it’s exhausting. (Tweet.)

The discussion started to come to a close with these two tweets about the state of online journalism, which Madrigal argued was tough, but not depressing.



UPDATE (Tuesday, 4 p.m.): The Atlantic has posted an official statement on the matter, from James Bennett, editor in chief.

My thoughts so far:

  • From the perspective of the writer: If a piece of my work were solicited for The Atlantic, and I were offered no payment—just exposure—I’d take it. At this stage of my career, it’s an attractive offer if the material is already written. Was it a good deal for Nate Thayer? Based on his career profile, it’s easy to see why he said no. Every writer can make a different decision and still have it be the right decision.
  • From my perspective as VQR web editor: (1) I have been taken to task on Twitter (at least indirectly) for VQR’s payment for online work, which is $100 per post. A freelance journalist told VQR (on Twitter) that pay rate is insulting. For an original, in-depth reported piece, I agree. However, $100 is not a one-size-fits-all pay rate. It varies from writer to writer and piece to piece. (2) Strong online writers, with something unique or meaningful to say—who also drive traffic—are not easy to get. They are in high demand. And I would pay well for their work if they came to me, but they are not (even when solicited). I believe that is because VQR doesn’t offer sufficient exposure, plus our site is cutting edge only if you’re an online writer from 2004. So writers: Don’t tell me exposure or platform doesn’t matter. I know it does—just like relationships and networking matter. (3) VQR is still print-driven, at least to the extent that it probably shouldn’t even have a full-time web editor position. Nine months in, I have barely begun to solve the dilemma of what our online content strategy ought to be given the limited resources we have (both time and money), but I can already see that continually sourcing freelance content for online is not optimal, possibly detrimental.
  • From the perspective of a publications leader (who once provided a vision for a brand): I hope there can be a compromise, somehow, between having a decentralized structure for Atlantic Online, but still having some brand consistency or philosophy in how content is sourced and pushed out. Must these two things be mutually exclusive? My idealistic side wants to say no—unless the various channels at Atlantic are SO different from one another that they absolutely must work under different business models. But I doubt this is the case?
  • From the perspective of someone who has long worked in publishing: I know few people, if any, who go into publishing (or journalism) for great pay. It’s usually about love, passion, a particular set of values, and the resolve to do something that’s very hard, not well paid, but ultimately rewarding in other ways. Some writers have chosen the freelance game, the same way others have chosen to work on the inside, for a regular paycheck, and (again, expressing my idealism), I believe there’s a shared set of goals. It’s far more productive to work together than to launch full-scale attacks, but that’s not to say we should hold back on constructive criticism or an idea exchange of how things can work better. For-profit publications that are (on the whole) ethical, transparent, and respected probably have the hardest time of all finding a sustainable business model. What do we gain by trashing them?

This is a complex and controversial issue, something that we discuss every week at my UVA class in digital media and publishing. I welcome discussion and comments below, but let’s avoid black-and-white declarations or finger pointing. I’d love to hear about particular online publications, websites, or outlets that you think are getting it RIGHT.

For more on this issue

  • To read a phenomenal exchange on this issue—among career freelance writers, editors, and other media insiders—visit this Branch conversation.
  • The Problem With Online Journalism by Felix Salmon offers an excellent analysis. He writes: “The Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down” … and … “At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down—as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like. The result is that Atlantic Digital’s freelancer budget is minuscule.”
  • Read Alexis Madrigal’s response to what happened: A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013
  • Finally, in a somewhat flip piece, but also important: “How Have You Devalued Professional Writing Today?” by Mark Armstrong (Longreads) helps everyone think more broadly and deeply about the issue.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
Posted in Electric Speed, Publishing Industry, Work-Life and tagged , , , .


  1. Thanks for the great roundup on this issue! You’re very fair to both sides, perhaps because you’ve worked on both sides. I would’ve taken the $100 deal without question – the exposure would’ve been worth it for me. However, if I was an experienced reporter who put in a lot of legwork on a piece then, no way.

    The same dilemma holds true in photography – every photographer has to figure out where they stand on free/cheap work. I take photos a lot around DC and get asked to use them. I’ve been asked for free photos by blogs (yes), biking mags (yes), local government (yes), people writing theses (yes), companies (no), glossy pubs (no) and nonprofits (no). If it’s a small publication or blog, I almost always say yes. I expect large organizations to pay something. And I can’t stand how nonprofits, even big ones, expect everything to be free.

    I’ve also learned that sometimes when you charge nothing, you get treated like nothing. Payment of some kind, even just $100, keeps people on their best behavior, for some reason. Capitalism, probably.

    • I object to the nonprofit statement. First of all, MANY nonprofits – including several large, mid-sized and small members of the Investigative News Network – employ freelancers and pay for their services. That said, nonprofits are inherently mission-driven charities for the public good. Volunteerism is a key component of charity work. Tarring a growing and increasingly vibrant sector of the journalism field isn’t going to help anyone in this conversation.

      • I support volunteerism & charity work as much as the next person, but I don’t think it serves nonprofits to actively solicit a professional’s work on that basis. If it is volunteered or freely offered, that’s a different story.

        The journalism nonprofits I’m familiar with go to great lengths to *fund* great reporting.

        • Jane,
          As the CEO of a nonprofit journalism organization that promotes nonprofit newsrooms focused on investigative and public service journalism I obviously have a very strong opinion about this topic.

          We are 100% committed to promoting nonprofit journalism and a journalist’s right to earn a living wage. That said, I disagree with your statement. The vast majority of nonprofit publishers have much smaller operating budgets than commercial news ventures. Those that rely on a certain number of volunteer reporters – such as the SF Public Press – must solicit for volunteers. There are, of course, ethical and unethical ways of doing so. But the solicitation of pro-bono services is often necessary, particularly when one is focused on under-served topics or communities. You are right in saying, however, that the vast majority of nonprofits do go to great lengths to fund great reporting. I just object to any knee-jerk reaction or blanket statement when it comes to the diverse set of needs and economics across the burgeoning but significantly under-funded nonprofit news movement.
          – Kevin Davis
          CEO, Investigative News Network

          • Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your perspective here. I should point out that I work for a nonprofit (VQR) that pays for reporting; VQR also benefits from other nonprofit organizations who fund our reporters.

  2. I understand there are many perspectives, the writer’s, the editor’s and the publisher’s, but for as many as they are, the very core of the problem is that a writer, at the end of the day, needs to eat in order to survive.

    • Indeed, we all have to eat; we all have to survive. But I don’t find this any more a compelling argument than saying, “Musicians need to eat in order to survive,” or “Artists need to eat in order to survive.” No one is entitled to make a living off their writing (or art).

      • This is unfair. This is not what Angela is saying at all: No one is pretending that anyone who jots down a word or plays an instrument is entitled to get paid. But if you’re a professional and that element (pay) has been taken out of the equation because the publisher is cheap, then we have a problem. Of course, anyone with an ounce of sense will not go into journalism in the first place these days, despite their “love” for it. It didn’t used to be that way and, again, that describes the state of journalism. The glass isn’t half full, Jane, is almost drained …

        • I don’t think publishers are cheap; I think they are acting rationally given the current market of abundant and free content. If you read some of the analysis by Felix Salmon at Reuters, or Alexis Madrigal’s response today, you can see this has little to do with greed. It’s about survival.

          If a writer is not being offered a living wage for what he is writing, maybe it’s time for him to change who he is writing for, or what he is writing.

      • I don’t see this as a tenable response. Editors are not entitled to a polite “No, thanks” for asking for a writer’s work for free, even though you advocate that. To impose a writer not being “entitled” to make a living as justification for a major publication offering zero dollars is highly problematic in comparison. This case not beginning to apply the heavy disparity between the importance of being polite and the importance of paying a workforce.

        I appreciate your round-up here very much, but don’t see how you arrive at some of your conclusions.

        • I didn’t mean to imply editors are entitled to that response—only that it is just as an effective response.

          The question is: If a writer wants to pursue a freelance life, how much are companies/editors obligated to make sure he can earn a living wage? I think it’s strange to put the obligation anywhere other than the writer to figure out how to make a living, rather than saying he’s owed a living by the publishing/media industry. Why would anyone be owed a living they’ve pursued by choice?

          For further discussion on this issue—in every regard—I highly recommend this:

          Freelance writers, editors, and other insiders discuss zero pay rates, low pay rates, and other concerns, and if you don’t understand my conclusions here, I think you will after diving into that thread.

  3. Several weeks ago (maybe longer), Madrigal tweeted to ask why any professional writer would write for Medium (he was addressing Robin Sloan). I don’t see why he questioned people writing for free on Medium but thinks writing for free for The Atlantic is any different.

    • I, too, am trying to figure out why people write for Medium. It feels like a fancy, gated form of Blogger or WordPress that trades on being exclusive or exclusionary. I wouldn’t put any credibility in a writer with a Medium byline, but I would pay attention to an Atlantic byline.

  4. Thanks for the summing up. I’m new to journalism, pretty much having had to start by writing for free, building up a portfolio. This does come as a worry though, for those of us in my generation (in my twenties). I’ve been a blogger since 2005 when blogging was still in its infancy, and have only been an online content journalist for 2 years. However, I’ve found that working for free does lead to good things, even if it is hard and money is tight. I’m now the editor of an up and coming organisation called Deaf Unity in the UK. There isn’t enough funding for us to be paid yet, but being there at the beginning is a brilliant and CV boosting opportunity. I think it’s definitely a tough market but perseverance and hard work is key.

  5. The Thayer case is just that tip of the iceberg. I have seen more and more complaints online in the past couple of months from experienced established freelancers who are now expected to “work for exposure” which they don’t need. Thus the world wide reaction to Thayer. Whether large corporations (which these days are not as ethical as you assume, especially if the policy is set by bean counting accountants and lawyers) or small organizations, the standard expectation today is that you should work for free. Increasingly it is the editors, or other commissioning people take that polite no as an insult–“we’re doing you a favour by publishing your work.” is heard more and more often these days,. “You should work for free or peanuts” has become an expected cultural norm in creative industries, not just online but in print as well. If there are more “full scale attacks” in recent months, it’s because to quote the movie that predicted all this the creator is “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Whether yelling out a window or passing angry tweets will do any good is unlikely but the anger is not going to go away.

    • I highly recommend reading the Felix Salmon post I linked to at the end. It accurately describes how digital journalism (that pays a living wage) gets published, and it’s predominantly by full-time staffers and contributors. Atlantic Digital employs more full-time journalists today than it did when it was print only.

      While freelancing for a living is not (and should not be) impossible, freelancing for living for only online publications might be. But I don’t think this is about greed or unethical editors—these companies (just like the companies before them that are/were print-centric) are correctly assessing the market value of the work in an online setting for their particular publication.

      In brief, the industry is changing—which should be no surprise to anyone who’s worked in media in the last 10 years.

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  10. ” At this stage of my career, it’s an attractive offer if the material is already written.”

    Me too! I’d be delighted at the chance to share my work with a larger audience. I’m only 5 years into my fiction career. I need the exposure so that I can continue to grow my readership.

    But my goal is to have a “rest of my life” career filled with lots of books and lots of stories and lots of articles. So one article for exposure is totally worth it to me.

    Will it be in 10 years? I don’t know. I kind of hope so because there are always new readers and new audiences. Plus, I believe in a simple thing called grace. I am lucky enough to have a writing career. I can have the grace to share my good fortune with editor big and small.

    Thanks for writing on such an interesting and important topic.

  11. My highest-paid writing assignments have come from small colleges that offer little in terms of exposure. My lowest-paid writing assignments (all $0) have come from The Huffington Post, The New York Times and TIME. The key, I think, is to balance the two (high pay vs high exposure). The goal, of course, is to achieve both in one assignment (high pay + high exposure). Still working on that last one.

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  13. Jane says: “I know few people, if any, who go into publishing (or journalism) for great pay. It’s usually about love, passion, a particular set of values, and the resolve to do something that’s very hard, not well paid, but ultimately rewarding in other ways.”
    She’s right — and very outdated. I’ve been a journalist for 30-plus years, and the pay was, up through the recession, fairly decent; one could make a living, get benefits and raise a family. The key component here is compensation. If you take away that factor — and it has been taken away — then what you have left is the current state of journalism: very poor and not likely to get much better.

    • Peter, I find that experienced journalists like yourself are pretty angry at the change happening; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was a longtime career journalist (Thayer) who sparked off this debate.

      While I know the ongoing change is going to result in a lot of damage (closed publications, ended careers), I have faith and optimism that journalism will come out alive and healthy, and there will be a new generation of journalists who know how to play the game and get paid a living wage while doing it.

      • First, I’d like to say that this is a great forum, and Ms. Friedman is extremely conscientious in answering every question. I can also tell from her writing that she’s a very bright woman. …

        That said, my rant: Who cares about the next generation of journalists? That’s all I hear, from the Knight Foundation’s idea of the “teaching hospital” method that universities are being urged to adopt, to others who ignore the fact that the best and brightest are no longer pursing journalism. They’ve fled and will continue to. Point me to the nearest newsroom and I’ll show you the empty desks.

        Meanwhile … those lost careers. What are the tens of thousands who are still awfully good journalists supposed to do while being trampled over by the “new breed?” Retire? Don’t those people deserve to work, too? No one has answer for that.

        I suppose this discussion really comes down to perspective: Someone with a solid, well-paying journalism career is going to wonder, “What’s up with all these cry babies?” You have to remember that people who have been burned aren’t so cheery. They’re not wrong; they can (and have) seen the other side of the road. So excuse them for not doing cart-wheels with joy over the current state of journalism, which no longer has a place, or need, for copy editors, for example. Hearst and the rest are all rolling over in their graves …

  14. For anyone reading this thread, I found Anil Dash’s point—at the Branch post I linked to above—particularly cogent:

    “Media needs both [paid writers and unpaid writers], and some kinds of information only come from the paid creators. The reckoning is that paid creators no longer have much leverage and publishers are exploiting that. … The sucky part of this is that getting paid writers out of the position of being underpaid requires them to adopt skills (like marketing and promoting themselves) that many either aren’t good at or have a cultural bias against. We also have to face the fact that more people want to make a living writing than are going to be able to do so, and not vilify the amateurs for seeing exposure as valuable. It is! It really is. And that’s okay.”

    Follow the much longer discussion here:

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  21. There is a lot going on here beyond the obvious “paid vs unpaid” issue, and in the face of at least some of The Atlantic’s less palatable actions, to suggest Thayer should simply have said “No thanks” is being a little obtuse.

    Of course Thayer was mad. At the very best, the editor wasted his time (and that of the UK people). Through a couple emails and a phone call, she kept mum on the payment issue. Remember, they didn’t want Thayer’s article, they wanted him to condense it, and to do so in a hurry.

    If the editor doesn’t waste everyone’s time, Thayer never posts the exchange. To compound the mess, witness the Atlantic’s half-assed responses, including the backhanded apology and Madrigal’s tortured, Russian-novel-length rationalization.

    I’ve made a living as a freelance copywriter for 27+ years, and watching journalism (and the bottom 2/3 of my own industry) collapse under the weight of free/near-free work is bad enough. The cherry topping on this Sundae of Distress is how so many of the online entities feel free to act like spoiled children.

    Decry Thayer’s thin skin if you want, but it’s The Atlantic that still needs to fire off a genuine apology for an unfortunate series of blunders. A simple “We’re sorry we didn’t disclose upfront the fact that we loved his article, but couldn’t pay for it” would have put this to bed long ago.

    • I’m forced to agree that the payment issue should’ve been discussed upfront. That said, I have considerable sympathy for the editor, who was only 2 weeks into her job. It’s too bad The Atlantic wasn’t able to better protect her from such missteps.

      As far as The Atlantic making a second apology … I’m skeptical that fixes anything. The Internet is rarely satisfied with apologies in these situations (see Paul Ford:, and I’d argue the situation would still be fervently debated even if the editor had offered immediate and upfront disclosure about payment terms.

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